Plane Confusion

People often make assumptions about others who have a physical or cognitive impairment. As a result, they often modify their paraverbal communication by speaking louder or slower, for example. It also happens sometimes when intercultural communication is involved.


I lived in Japan before joining CPI and I taught English as a second language. During spring, summer, and winter breaks, my friends and I would vacation throughout Southeast Asia. One memorable trip took me to Cambodia and the jungle kingdom of Angkor Wat.


As sometimes happened, I picked up a bug and was feeling ill on the flight from Cambodia back to Tokyo. It was that sickness you get that makes you feel like you've been hit by a truck. Throbbing, head-splitting headaches, body aches, and chills. The plane was full and I was sandwiched between two passengers in the middle seat. I was hoping that I wasn't transferring some horrible, flesh-eating disease to them, and didn't want them to know I was sick. But the progression of my misery got worse and worse and I was getting to the point where I could barely stand up. I knew I would need help getting off the plane and the authorities would certainly want me to go to the infirmary and possibly quarantine.


As we were about an hour away from Tokyo, I decided to inform the flight attendant to let her know. This way she could have the pilot radio ahead for a wheelchair. But, I didn't want to alarm the passengers beside me, so I decided to write her a little note. All I could find to write on was an old matchbook and the only pen I had was running out of ink, so I had to keep it short. I wrote, "Sick . . . need doctor Tokyo." I pushed the call button and when she came over, I handed her the note. She read it, looked at me with a confused expression, read the note again, and then in a voice that could have wakened the dead said, "DO . . . YOU . . . SPEAK . . . ENGLISH!" Though I felt like death warmed over, I had just  enough energy to reply, "YES! AS . . . A . . . MATTER . . . OF . . . FACT . . . I'M . . . AN . . . ENGLISH . . . TEACHER!" Looking even more confused now, she asked me what was up with the matchbook note. I told her that I was trying to keep my condition under wraps so as not to alarm the people sitting beside me, but I guess it didn't matter now. Cat's outta the bag!


People laugh when I tell that story, but there is nothing funny about using inappropriate communication with someone just because they have a condition or impairment that makes them different from you. Be careful with your paraverbal communication. Don't make assumptions. Don't be judgmental and don't forget your antimalaria pills for the jungle trek.

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